Why Involvement in Outreach is Important as a PGR

Megan is a second year PhD student in Mathematics, CEMPS at the University of Exeter. She is the beneficiary of an STFC studentship for a “Multi-Spacecraft Investigation of Solar and Heliospheric Plasmas”. She graduated from the University of Exeter in 2018 with an MSci Mathematics (Geophysical and Astrophysical Fluid Dynamics). A strong believer in engaging the wider public in the scientific process, she runs a variety of outreach sessions with the University’s Widening Participation Team aimed at children and young people of all ages. She is also involved in I’m a Scientist Stay at Home, an online activity which helps classes and youth groups connect with scientists, engineers, their teachers, and each other during school closures in 2020.

I’m a passionate believer in access to education and after starting my PhD in 2018 I made sure to get involved in outreach and public engagement. Whilst I can only speak from my experience in science, outreach in the humanities is just as important to ensure children and adults can engage with, share, and pursue their passions, and this particularly relevant during lockdown.

The term ‘research’ is seen an abstract concept, and as a result of this academics are often seen as ‘other’, as different from the norm which is far from the case in my experience. Often, outreach and public engagement serves to demystify academia, both its processes and the people involved. Showing that we are people, that we are not just sat in dusty libraries or hidden in labs, arguing over minutiae in our fields, and this is more important now than ever. The public trust scientists in academia; as a group we are more trusted than our counterparts in industry and in policy making and government . Our current situation has fuelled a new desire to understand 1 2 the process behind the decision making and the science it is based on, but in order to do that those involved must articulate what it means to do research. It’s often difficult when immersed in work and years in academia to remember how we looked at this beforehand and PGRs are ideally suited to bridging this gap.

Last year, I got to grill Sir Patrick Vallance himself about improving public confidence in STEM experts , he stressed that “we need to stop positioning science advances as absolutist solutions, 3 and engage with audiences to show that science is more self-correcting than it appears.” To do this, we need to communicate just what the scientific process is, and how that relates to the experiments we do in our everyday lives, like figuring out the fastest route to the supermarket.

This sense of absolutism is also present in the way science is often taught in schools. Recently, working with a school, I was asked how the research community distinguished ‘fake-news’; we broadly discussed how we compare analysis and methodology, to critique and help build our own judgements, just like in school, but the concept of a peer review process entirely new to them. The process of evaluating and discussing the merits of a piece against what is presently known, is simply not taught in this way in schools, from a science perspective, they’re told what the science is but not about how we got there. This creates a large gap in the understanding of budding scientists, but one that engaging with academics helps to bridge. By humanising the people doing research and being honest about the process, about our failures, not just our successes we help to move away from absolutism towards understanding and meaningful engagement with research.

For me, outreach is a personal passion, but it also helps with my mood and focus. It reminds me why I love my PhD and of the extraordinary opportunities I am afforded through it. The children, adults, and teachers I have worked with, particularly over the last few weeks, have asked thoughtful and insightful questions that have genuinely challenged me. Instead of dragging myself to my desk, I’m filled with a renewed sense of optimism, gratitude and the curiosity that motivated me to start a PhD in the first place.

Written by: Megan Maunder – PGR Mathematics, CEMPS

Twitter: @Megan_Maunder
Staff profile: http://emps.exeter.ac.uk/mathematics/staff/mlm216 

https://www.britishscienceassociation.org/public-attitudes-to-science-survey1 https://wellcome.ac.uk/reports/wellcome-global-monitor/20182 https://www.rsb.org.uk/policy/policy-events/voice-of-the-future

Completing a PhD during a pandemic


Richard was recently awarded a PhD by Publication in Biological Sciences by the University of Exeter. His thesis on the role of citizen science in assessing biodiversity trends for British butterflies and moths was supervised by Dr Ilya Maclean from the Environment and Sustainability Institute at Penryn and Dr Rob Wilson (formerly in the Biosciences Dept on the Streatham campus). He was one of the first Exeter students to have an online PhD viva examination.

When I handed in my thesis on 14th February, coronavirus still seemed a remote and unlikely threat to the normality of life in Devon and Cornwall. I’d done the hard part, my papers were published, my extended introduction was written and now it was just the final, nerve-wracking hurdle of the viva to endure (or enjoy as I kept being told by everyone I asked for advice). My examiners had been appointed (two external and one internal for a PhD by Publication) and the date had been set in late April. All that was left to do was to read and re-read my thesis and brush up on some of the key papers that I’d cited. I’d even attended a University workshop entitled Preparing for your Viva, which was excellent and I would thoroughly recommend everyone to attend.

And then, of course, the lockdown happened. Initially, the viva was pushed from the front of my mind by concerns about family and friends getting ill, dealing with school closures for my teenage children and adapting to changes in my job (I work full time for the charity Butterfly Conservation). However, before long I began to think about the viva again. Now though, my main worry wasn’t about being asked tricky questions about the statistical techniques I’d used in Chapter 3, but about the viva being postponed indefinitely into the post-pandemic world.

It was a great relief, therefore, to be contacted first by my supervisor and then by the University PGR admin team and offered the option to have a virtual viva. The speed with which the University moved to get new policies in place to allow online viva examinations was fantastic. With the addition of another person, a Non-Examining Independent Chair, to the panel, the stage was set.

I did have a few additional worries – would I be able to join the meeting OK at the appointed time without having a frantic scramble to reboot the software as the minutes ticked by? – but I would have had alternative worries for a face-to-face viva (car breaking down, forgetting to put trousers on etc. – oh no that was just a bad dream!). So, I had a few practice runs to make sure I was completely familiar with the software and hoped for the best.

Three and a half hours later and it was all over. The technology worked smoothly and without a hitch, there was no off-putting time lag and the examiners were really well organised enabling the conversation to flow easily without the awkward pauses and speaking over each other that is a feature of some online meetings. It was thorough and challenging, but yes it was enjoyable. Top tip for a question to expect and prepare for (neither of which I had done!) – which of your chapters is the strongest and which the weakest and why?

My supervisors had joined the meeting at the start to greet the examiners and then came back online at the end to help with the celebrations, which was a really nice touch. Having never done a face-to-face viva, I can’t make a true comparison, but I don’t think that the online viva was any more difficult an ordeal than a traditional one. Indeed, without the stress of travel and the formality of being in an unfamiliar room with a panel of examiners, it was probably a more conducive environment to enable me to defend my work effectively and have stimulating discussions on wider issues. Best of all, being able to sit my viva and complete my PhD despite the lockdown enabled me to take something really positive from these dark and difficult days.


Written by: Richard Fox

Twitter: @RichardFoxBC

From Lifeboat Crew to Maritime History Postgraduate Research

Dr Sam Jones studied Law at the London School of Economics (LSE) before being awarded a DPhil in Socio-Legal Studies at the University of Oxford in 1992 where she researched compensation for victims of mass accidents such as the Herald of Free Enterprise capsize and King’s Cross fire. She had a 20 year public service career in Whitehall, Stormont and the Scottish Parliament. More recently she has run her own photography business, worked in consultancy and local development and been involved in dealing with handling complaints against the legal profession north and south of the border. Having served on the lifeboat crew, Sam is now the volunteer Lifeboat Operations Manager at Tobermory RNLI lifeboat station in what spare time she has alongside a full time job and a part time PhD.

I am a part time, distance learning PGR at the Centre for Maritime Historical Studies. In terms of the UK, it would be hard to be more distant as I am lucky to live on the Isle of Mull in the Hebrides.

My distance from the university means that the Researcher Development Programme and the opportunity to attend webinars is really important, not only in terms of my own skills development but also in feeling connected to the university and fellow students. I have found that they really fulfil these goals. As someone who had been out of education and academia for 26 years before I commenced my PhD, the webinars have also helped me update my knowledge on modern approaches to research. My DPhil was BTI (before the internet) and even though I am now I my second year, I am still overwhelmed at how much primary and secondary material is online. The days of trekking into a library every day and spending a small fortune on photocopying articles in dusty journals feel like ancient history.

My journey back into academia began when I joined the local Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) lifeboat crew here in Tobermory ten years ago. Having always had an interest in history, I became particularly interested in the RNLI’s own rich history. Whilst lifeboat design and rescues have featured heavily in books about the institution, not much has been written about the leadership, governance and development of the organisation and there is surprisingly very little academic research. The RNLI was founded in 1824 and I am excited to be on the Scottish Regional Panel for planning the bicentennial celebrations in four years’ time. However, my particular focus is on the RNLI in the second half of the nineteenth century. The re-organisation which took place from the 1850s onwards laid the foundations of the modern RNLI. It also saw the RNLI accept a subsidy from the government for the only time in its history. That is until a few weeks ago when the RNLI furloughed around 400 staff through the UK government’s Covid-19 job retention scheme.

The range of webinars available through the Researcher Development Programme is really broad and I have enjoyed not only learning about aspects which are relevant at my early stage but also dipping into issues which I will face much further down the line. There was a particularly good panel discussion on publishing your thesis last week, not least because it was inspiring to hear from fellow students who have not only survived their PhDs but have published their work for a wider audience. I really enjoyed my DPhil first time around. Or at least I must have forgotten all the bad and stressful bits for me to go through this process again. However, my one regret was that I didn’t publish my work, despite the encouragement of my supervisors.

I have found the online ‘Shut Up and Write’ sessions particularly useful. The discipline of writing alongside peers in 25 minute blocks is so conducive to being productive. In five sessions in the spring last year, I wrote 6,273 words. Not all survived the final edit but as we all know, just getting words and ideas down on paper can be significant progress.

Above all, the webinars and online writing retreats make me feel connected to the university and also to my fellow PGRs. Whenever I visit Exeter, I try to link up with fellow students. One of my friends who I always see for a coffee when I’m down in lovely Devon even made it all the way up to Tobermory last year from Salcombe, although our refreshments here were more of the alcoholic variety.

I look forward to making new friends via the webinars and writing retreats, especially as there are so many taking place at the moment. I really can’t recommend the ‘Shut Up and Write’ sessions enough. If you haven’t tried them, give them a go.

Written by: Sam Jones

Twitter: @samjonesrnli 

Starting a PhD during a pandemic

Léna is a first year PhD student at Exeter University Business School in Penryn. She investigates the design of regenerative agriculture community-based systems that could potentially address both deforestation and food insecurity challenges. Léna collaborates with the NGO Cool Earth which creates partnerships with indigenous communities to tackle deforestation and climate change. Her research focuses on the projects Cool Earth has developed in Peru with Awajún and Asháninka communities. 

I was only 15 days into my PhD when I left Cornwall to return to my home country: France. I did it with a heavy heart: I had just settled in Falmouth, had been warmly welcomed by people at university, as well as my flatmates. I tried to reassure my family by telling them this crisis was far from us, but they insisted it would reach us soon and that I should be back home as quickly as possible.

I booked my tickets and left three hours after. After a 17-hour trip including two trains, a long walk, a nap in Kings Cross station, a bus and a plane, I arrived in Toulouse two hours before France started its lockdown. It was on 17th of March.

I feel a lot has happened since that day, although when I think about it I mainly have been sitting in front of my computer or reading a book in my garden when sun shows up – which fortunately happens quite often in South of France!

Maybe this impression comes from all the emotional stages I have been through since the beginning of this crisis. First, it was denial: the pandemic would never hit us, I was safe in Cornwall (hence the fact I bought and cooked food for approximately a month the day before I left…).

Then, fear appeared: I was suddenly back home, and I did not know how I would be able to continue – or I could even start – my research. I was also scared about the impact of the virus on the indigenous communities I hope to be able to visit for my field work in the future. They have been able to block the access to their territories and therefore limit the spread of the virus for now. But in the case some of them would get sick, there is very little access to healthcare in the remote regions they inhabit. This situation could also worsen some challenges communities already face such as food insecurity. In fact, some villages are highly dependent on food imports, and difficulties in accessing external markets could result into a dramatic decrease of the amount and the quality of food included in their diet.

After fear came anger. I was recently talking to some friends in Mexico who were explaining to me that most of the Mexican population would not stay home. Many of them cannot afford to respect the lockdown since they are daily workers. Indeed, in Latin America and in many countries around the world, people have often to choose between staying home or feeding their families. This raises the question of inequalities among human beings to deal with this crisis. The disparities are not only economic but also social and educational. For instance, in France, up to 8% of children have not been able to attend online school.

This led to a phase of gratefulness. I focused on how lucky how was to have a job that I loved and that I can do remotely. Although it is hard to start a project from home, since it is a crucial period to train on research methods or build a network; I am aware that the work of many researchers has been deeply more affected than mine. All my wishes are with them and I really hope that solutions will be found to support them effectively.

I am also thankful for the constant support I received from University and especially from my supervisors. I am also able to keep in touch with the NGO I am collaborating with so this also means I can have regular updates on the situation in the communities.

Now, my goal is to stay positive and even become hopeful. Yes, the situation is dramatic, and life will very unlikely return to normal anytime soon. But is back to normality what we should be aiming for? Could we not take advantage of this unprecedented challenge to imagine a new societal organisation? And has not this change already started?

In France, for example, local food distribution channels have soared, and there is currently a big push from consumers to develop this system in the future months rather than going back to long and blurred supply chains.

In short, my current way to deal with the situation is to see it as a warning, an opportunity for us to change a system – which has many times shown and once again demonstrates its limits and dangers – as well as our own behaviour. How will this pandemic impact my projects in the medium and long term? Can my research contribute to presenting an alternative?

Staying home is an effort we are all doing. When we will be able to go out, where will we go? And what will we do?

I hope to be able to come back to Cornwall as soon as I can and connect with my peers to share opinions and perspectives on these open questions. In the meantime, I will be happy to do it remotely!


Written by: Léna Prouchet

Twitter: @LenaProuchet